One-Minute Book Reviews

June 1, 2022

How Great Writing Helped Charlotte Curtis Blaze Trails At The New York Times

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The Ohio-born writer and editor Charlotte Curtis wasn’t just the first woman to appear on the masthead of the New York Times and to edit its op-ed page. She had earlier helped to transform its women’s section from a pink ghetto into one that welcomed diverse voices and was widely imitated by publications around the country.

How did Curtis scale the walls of the old boys’ club at a venerable newspaper? Here’s my appreciation of her work with a sidebar that gives 17 of her best leads for stories: https://medium.com/history-of-women/how-great-writing-helped-charlotte-blaze-trails-in-journalism-f36ba60eb76a

January 21, 2012

Libba Bray’s Comic Novel for Teenagers, ‘Beauty Queens’

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Miss Teen Dream contestants try to keep their spirits up after their plane goes down

Beauty Queens. By Libba Bray. Scholastic, 396 pp., $18.95. Ages 12 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Thirteen beauty queens stumble into literal and metaphorical quicksand after their plane crashes on a tropical island in this madcap feminist farce with AK-47s and eyelash curlers. With fish and coconuts to sustain them, the Miss Teen Dream contestants don’t waste time weeping for their dead chaperones, who might have enforced the morals-clauses in their contracts. They keep hoping for a rescue and practicing their dance steps for the pageant, led by the crown-obsessed Miss Texas, until they discover that their island holds secret agents with high-tech offices hidden in a volcano who may work for their corporate sponsor.

As they try to outwit the men with walkie-talkies, the contestants have time to explore their varied sexual identities – straight, gay, transgender or uncertain – with the frankness of Miss Illinois, who dislikes having to declare an orientation like a major: “I am straight with a minor in gay.” Their tale sags in its last third under the weight and predictability of the wrap-ups of all the subplots — each involving a character who sees that she must be true herself, no matter what her unenlightened parents or friends think — and a deus ex machina in the form of a ship full of TV-show pirates.

But Libba Bray satirizes worthy targets along the way, including corporate greed, identity politics, and sexual double standards. And the contestants’ stories coalesce into a tidy theme expressed by Miss Nebraska. “Maybe girls’ need  an island to find themselves,” she says. “Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching so they can be who they really are.”

Best line: “My platform is Identifying Misogyny in American Culture.” From the “Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page” about Adina Greenberg, Miss New Hampshire, a high school journalist who entered the contest hoping to expose how it promotes “the objectification of women.”

Worst line: “Taylor had heard enough. She emerged from the jungle like a Kurtzian goddess.” In these lines, Bray is writing from the point of view of Taylor Hawkins, Miss Texas, a pageant obsessive who shows little evidence of having read anything but I’m Perfect and You Can Be, Too, a self-help manual by a Miss Teen Dream winner who resembles a Southern-fried Sara Palin. It’s hard to believe she would see herself in terms of a character in Heart of Darkness.

Published: May 2011

Furthermore: Beauty Queens is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the young-adult literature category. Some critics have called Beauty Queens a “satire,” and it does satirize contemporary follies, but its intentionally over-the-top aspects give it more in common with farce. The novel is the fifth by bestselling author Libba Bray, who lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was recently named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar to the right of this review.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 13, 2010

On Not Making Coffee – Quote of the Day / From ‘News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist’

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Laurie Hertzel began her 18-year career at the Duluth News Tribune in 1976, the year Barbara Walters became the first female co-anchor of a network newscast. But such milestones had yet to open many doors for women at the Minnesota newspaper. Male reporters still wrote most of the stories, and the chief photographer was a man who had spent time in a German prison in World War II and made his way to America with his life savings hidden in an accordion.

Hertzel recalls her experiences at the News Tribune in News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, a lively new memoir from the University of Minnesota Press. In this excerpt she tells what happened after she learned that she was supposed to make coffee for her male colleagues:

“I might have been timid, but I had a strong sense of fairness. I didn’t drink coffee, so I saw no good reason why it should be my responsibility. Also, it was logistically complicated. The only place with a sink deep enough to hold the coffee urn was the men’s bathroom. There was a women’s restroom on our floor, but it was a tiny, one-hole affair with a shallow sink, located directly across from the sports department. This meant that every time one of the seven women on the floor had to pee, the sportswriters didn’t just know it, they could hear it. It was a humiliating bathroom for a shy person, and it was of absolutely no use in making coffee.

“To make coffee I had to lug the urn down the hall, pound on the door, yell, ‘Is anybody in there?’ and then go in and fill it up at the big, deep sink, hoping that no guy came in needing to take a whiz, and then stagger with it back down the hall, water sloshing my ankles. This was not something I was inclined to do, so I set about scheming to get out of this responsibility. First, I started bugging guys when they were at their busiest. ‘Can you fill the coffee pot for me? There’s someone in the bathroom.’ They didn’t care to be interrupted when they were on deadline, and they didn’t want to be away from their phones when they were waiting for a call back from a source, so this drove them a little nuts. And then I made coffee … badly. Undrinkably so. In a newsroom, that’s saying a lot. …

“So it wasn’t too long before the responsibility just sort of evaporated, and I could concentrate on the fun stuff … ”

Hertzel, who is books editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, tells more about News to Me on her Web site. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/StribBooks and read more excerpts from her memoir on the University of Minnesota Press blog.

June 15, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Faults Islam and Multiculturalists in ‘Nomad’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:40 pm
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The author of Infidel returns with an inflammatory polemic

Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Free Press, 304 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of five, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali was circumcised with scissors by a man hired by her grandmother. She later fled to Holland to escape a forced marriage and collaborated on a Dutch film about the oppression of Muslim women, which led to death threats and another move – this time, to America.

Hirsi Ali described these and other upheavals in Infidel, a harrowing account of her efforts to forge an independent life after rejecting Islam and the violent culture of her family’s tribe. Nomad is a much less effective book, and not just because it repeats in different form many of the ideas and incidents in that memoir.

In this inflammatory polemic Hirsi Ali argues that Islam is not just a religion but “a violent way of life,” and she condemns its “increasingly dangerous impacts” — a stilted phrase typical of the writing in Nomad — on Western societies. She believes that Muslim immigrants must be required to assimilate, a process that includes respecting the laws of their adopted countries instead of demanding that their crimes be tried in sharia courts. As she describes her conversion from Islam to atheism, she calls for “a massive public effort to reveal, ridicule, revile, and replace” traditional Islamic views, especially those that cast women as property.

To support her arguments, Hirsi Ali draws heavily on the brutality suffered by her family in passages that are among the most vivid in Nomad. She also makes a strong case that honor killings and other crimes against Muslim women exist in the U.S. as well as abroad but that the media play down their religious basis for fear of offending the faithful.

On other subjects, Hirsi Ali oversimplifies or underdocuments her points or extrapolates too freely from her own life. She faults multiculturalists who seek to enable Muslims to preserve their old culture in their adopted countries: “Social workers in the West will tell you that immigrants need to maintain group cohesion for their mental health, because otherwise they will be confused and their self-esteem destroyed. This is untrue.” But there are degrees of “cohesion” and “self-esteem,” and immigrants may suffer as much from cutting all ties to their culture as from cutting none. This kind of either-or logic pervades the book.

Since the publication of Infidel, Hirsi Ali has also become more closely linked to the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank that employs her. Some of her causes demand support from liberals and conservatives alike, including her call for an end to honor killings.

But it is unfortunate that after spending much of Nomad arguing that violence against Muslim women should concern everyone, Hirsi Ali faults feminists for not doing more to end it when, in fact, well-known feminists such as Gloria Steinem may have done more than any other group to publicize the problem. Her nearsightedness on this and other issues may alienate many people who share her outrage about honor killings and related crimes.  Infidel – which keeps a tighter focus on her story – makes a better introduction to her work.

Best line: Hirsi Ali says that when she and her family lived in Saudi Arabia, her father and brother often went to a “tribunal of justice” at a spot known as Chop-Chop Square: “There men and boys would take their seats and watch the sinners being punished with stonings, floggings, amputations, or beheadings.”

Worst line: “In fact a certain kind of feminism has worsened things for the female victims of misogyny perpetrated by men of color. My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff-Sommers, calls this ‘the feminism of resentment.’”

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

You may also want to read: One-Minute Book Reviews also posted a review  of Infidel and a reading group guide to Infidel.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 30, 2009

Women Shut Out of Publishers Weekly List of 10 Best Books of 2009

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Poetry and books from small presses don’t make the grade, either

No books by female authors appear on the list of the 10 best books of the year just posted by Publishers Weekly, the leading industry trade journal. I focus on reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews but have reacted to the shutout in tweets at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda that mention a couple of titles by women that PW might have included.

If you look at the trade journal’s list, you may notice that apart from having no books by female authors, it has no poetry or books from small presses. And 70 percent of the titles come from Random House and its imprints (Knopf, Doubleday, Spiegel & Grau, Ballantine and Pantheon) with the rest coming from Norton and Penguin. Best-of-the-year lists are arbitrary and often inscrutable, so I won’t try to dissect PW‘s here. But if I see noteworthy patterns emerging in these lists, I may comment on them in “Late Night With Jan Harayda,” a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and don’t include reviews.

September 4, 2009

The Secret Lives of SLUGS (Smith Lesbians Until Graduation) – J. Courtney Sullivan’s Novel of Female Friendship, ‘Commencement’

Where first-year students get a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex

Commencement. By J. Courtney Sullivan. Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Commencement is probably best appreciated while wearing nothing but Saran Wrap or body paint – the apparent garb of choice at an annual clothing-optional party at Smith College. As pop fiction, this book has slightly more literary merit than a Jackie Collins novel. But as a study in the folkways of the undergraduates at Smith – and especially its lesbians – it’s fascinating.

Who would have thought that any students needed, right after arriving on campus, a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex? In Commencement, they get one from a house president who says: “Basically, don’t shower with your significant other during prime traffic flow – usually about eight to ten a.m. It’s really disrespectful, and, honestly, who wants to hear two dykes going at it first thing in the morning?”

J. Courtney Sullivan offers many such details as she tells the story of a quartet of friends, all Phi Beta Kappa graduates the Smith Class of 2002, who return to their alma mater four years after graduation for the wedding of one of their members. But instead of exploiting the potential for a great send-up of some of the collegiate excesses she describes, Sullivan tries to make a statement about the varied strains of feminism on campus and the evils of sex-trafficking off-campus, both of which have been done much better by others. If at times amusing or perceptive, her writing is also stilted, beset by point-of-view problems, and slowed by her frequent backtracking from the women’s post-college lives to their days at Smith.

Yet Sullivan is a good enough reporter that she leaves you with memorable images, not all of which involve lesbianism. When it snowed, she tells us, college trucks poured soy sauce on the walkways of a quadrangle because “the salty liquid melted the ice without polluting the ground.” There was only one problem: “the entire Quad smelled like a Thai restaurant until February.”

Best line: No. 1: “Then there was Immorality, the notorious clothing-optional party held in Tyler House [at Smith College] every Halloween. Women attended in nothing but lingerie, or body paint, or Saran Wrap.” No. 2: “There was a name for girls like her: SLUG. It stood for Smith Lesbian Until Graduation.”

Worst line: One of many stilted lines: “Lately April had been obsessed with whether or not they should try to stop Sally from getting married, stating that she was too young and had no idea what she was getting herself into.”

Editor: Jenny Jackson

Published: June 2009

Furthermore: Commencement is the first novel by Sullivan, a Smith graduate and resident of Brooklyn, NY, who works for the New York Times.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 21, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time — Gloria Steinem and J. Courtney Sullivan

The latest in a series of occasional posts on authors who praise each other’s work

Gloria Steinem on J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement:
“Take Mary McCarthy’s The Group, add a new feminist generation striving to understand everything from themselves and their mothers to the notion of masculinity that fuels sex trafficking, and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel. Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning.”

J. Courtney Sullivan on Gloria Steinem in Commencement:
From the acknowledgments for Commencement: “For helping me understand the reality of sex trafficking in America, I owe thanks to … Gloria Steinem.”

From the pages of Commencement: “I came here because it was the alma mater of Gloria Steinem and Molly Ivins. I thought it was the most effective place to fight the patriarchy in this godforsaken country.” — A character named April on why she wanted to attend Smith College

Also from Commencement: “Her ultimate hero was Gloria Steinem. She had improved countless lives , with actions as simple as setting up networks of women who would otherwise never have found one another and starting a magazine devoted to feminism. She always stood up for what was right and never compromised her principles, but she also didn’t offend the average person’s sensibilities and wasn’t afraid to highlight her hair. She liked men! She dated. She got married, though it ended tragically. She was a real woman who believed in equality. Wasn’t that a hundred times more powerful than the contributions of someone who was divisive and scary. …? — A Smith alumna named Sally on the different types of activism

Other examples of logrolling appear in the Backscratching in Our Time category on this site.

June 30, 2009

‘Our Poor Degraded Sex’ — Quote of the Day / Queen Victoria in ‘We Two’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:01 am
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Gillian Gill’s new We Two has disarmingly blunt comments on womanhood by Queen Victoria, a mother of nine who hated pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum woes. A review of Gill’s biography of Victoria and Albert will appear this week.

One memorable quote turns up in a letter from Queen Victoria to her daughter Vicky, who had married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Vicky complained that Prussian men cared only for women who beautiful and fertile. Queen Victoria sent her daughter a letter that had something of the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw:

“That despising of our poor degraded sex … is a little in all clever men’s natures; dear Papa [Prince Albert] is not quite exempt though he would not admit it – but he laughs and sneers constantly at many of them and their inevitable inconveniences, etc. Though he hates the want of affection, of due attention and protection of them, says that all men who leave all home affairs – and the education of their children – to their wives, forget their first duties.”

June 27, 2009

A Teacher With Large Breasts and a Small Brain Gets Her Comeuppance in ‘The Dunderheads,’ A Picture Book by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by David Roberts

Students seek revenge when Miss Breakbone calls them dunderheads

The Dunderheads. By Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by David Roberts. Candlewick, 56 pp., $16.99. Age range: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A cynic might call The Dunderheads an ideal book for anyone who believes that children are never too young to learn that some women with large breasts do have small brains. But that view may be too harsh. David Roberts’s pictures are often funny even if the protagonist of this book looks like a refugee from a wacky Hooters franchise staffed by middle-aged teachers-union members.

The cruel Miss Breakbone seems not to have gotten the message that she might crush her students’ fragile self-esteem if she never assigns essays on topics like, “Why I’m Special.” She brazenly calls her class a bunch of dunderheads – at least when she isn’t confiscating their cell phones and vowing not to give them back.

But her students have self-esteem to spare, fostered by their many achievements, and Miss Breakbone is too dumb to see how smart they really are. A female student nicknamed Hollywood is typical: “She’s got every movie that was ever made and has watched them all 11 times.” So one day when Miss Breakbone goes too far, her students take their revenge in a breaking-and-entering caper that ends when she finds a note that says, “The Dunderheads were here!”

All of this is reasonably diverting, owing largely to Roberts’s flair for visually amusing details, such as the skull-shaped lamp on Miss Breakbone’s dresser. But the plotting isn’t as clever nor is the writing as sharp as in in many other tales of a classroom revolt, such as Miss Nelson Is Missing!. Miss Breakbone’s name, for example, is somewhat labored and not as funny as that of Viola Swamp in Harry Allard and James Marshall’s back-to-school tale.  And a goggle-eyed character named “Google-Eyes” may leave some children using the incorrect phrase for a lifetime.

Best line / picture: Roberts’s spread showing the movie addict named Hollywood in a bunker-like room full of cables, DVDs, Oscar statues, and a television and larger-than-life remote control.

Worst line / picture: “That’s when Google-Eyes went to work.” The girl shown on this spread isn’t “Google-eyed” but “goggle-eyed.” Fleischman also writes: “Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw.” That similie sounds dated coming from a young narrator whose classmates bring cell phones to school, all members of a generation that might never drink a malted milk (if that’s what’s meant here).

Suggested age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 6–10. This suggestion is unrealistic for many children given that The Dunderheads has a picture-book format and children often begin to spurn picture books at about the age of 6 or 7 (and to crave picture books that have more than 32 pages, as this one does, one starting at 4 or 5). School Library Journal says the book is for Grades 2-5 (roughly ages 7-10). But, again, it seems too optimistic to believe this book would appeal to many 8- and 9-year-olds who have enjoyed, for example, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The natural audience for the format of The Dunderheads might seem to be 4- and 5-year-olds who want picture books with more than the usual 32 pages, such as the original Flat Stanley with words by Jeff Brown and illustrations by Tomi Ungerer. But — speaking just for myself — I wouldn’t give this one to a literal-minded child who start school soon because of its message, however humorously developed, that some teachers just hate children and, if you get one, you may feel better if you take criminal acts of revenge.

Published: June 2009

About the author and illustrator: Fleischman, a Californian, won the 1989 Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and has posted an excerpt from it on his Web site. Roberts lives in London and has illustrated many books for children, some of them prize-winners.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.  To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Books that will reviewed on this site are sometimes announced in advance at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 14, 2009

When Livia Soprano Met Mary Tyler Moore – Maria Laurino Grapples With Being an Italian-American in ‘Old World Daughter, New World Mother’

A former speechwriter calls for a revolution that, in some ways, has already arrived

Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.
By Maria Laurino. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maria Laurino entered Georgetown University in the late 1970s, “a member of that privileged generation that reaped the benefits, without doing any of the grassroots work,” of the women’s movement that flowered decade earlier. She tries to repay the debt in a book that begins as a memoir of growing up Italian-American in Short Hills, New Jersey, and devolves into a brief for an updated feminist ethic that combines an Old World respect for families with a New World admiration for individualism.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother resembles a dish of parmesan-cheese ice cream, that acquired taste found in some Italian restaurants. Laurino writes memorably about having a disabled brother and developing severe preeclampsia after becoming pregnant at the age of 37. But she links such experiences, not always plausibly, to a call for a “social revolution” that would require unprecedented female harmony and seemingly little work by men: “Once women agree on a vision for a national feminist movement that makes care its core principle, more creative solutions to help working parents will abound.” Given that both sexes — and their children — would benefit from those solutions, why should women alone have to agree on a vision for them? Shouldn’t men bear some of the responsibility for it?

In making her case for revolution, Laurino draws on the views and jargon of literary and gender theorists and scholars such as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. Yet a curiously old-fashioned idea appears to underlie her book: that bringing about the revolution is, in effect, “women’s work.” The reality is often quite different. The reason many corporations now offer flexible schedules and refer to “maternity leave” as “parental leave” is in part that men are increasingly are seeking to spend more time with newborns and older children.

Laurino admits that’s she nostalgic for the excitement of 60s feminists for new ideas – at times she sounds weirdly like the men who, before the war in Iraq, lamented that they were born too late for Vietnam – and her sentimentality may help to explain why this book has the air of a throwback. Her Were You Always an Italian? showed that she has a lively perspective on her ancestry. Old World Daughter, New World Mother yokes her background so aggressively to other topics that it leaves the impression that, wittingly or not, she is in danger of becoming a professional Italian-American.

Best line: No. 1: “In her book The Equality Trap, Mary Ann Mason, now dean of the graduate school at Berkeley, told of how the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the early eighties  in favor of the California Federal Savings and Loan after the bank fired a receptionist for taking a four-month unpaid maternity leave.” If true, this startling tone-deafness to working women’s needs would help to explain why feminist groups have had trouble finding support from a new generation. No. 2: “When Mary Met Livia,” the title for a chapter about the collision between images of the liberated Mary Tyler Moore and the tradition-bound Livia Soprano in Laurino’s life.

Worst line: No. 1: “Our income shrunk significantly …” No. 2: “ Will men ever break loose ‘from the empire of phallocratism’?” No. 3: “Or, put another way, maybe I needed to get off my asana and smell the coffee.”

Published: April 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Laurino lives in New York City. She has worked for the Village Voice and as a speechwriter for former mayor David Dinkins.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like books but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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